Autonomy promised in Ukraine

February 4, 2005

Ukraine's "orange revolution" and the inauguration last week of President Viktor Yushchenko will mean a major shake-up for the country's higher education system.J Part of Mr Yushchenko campaign rested on giving leading universities the right to bestow their own higher degrees and academic titles.

The president's advisers said he had pledged that the "over-bureaucratised" Higher Attestation Commission (VAK) would no longer certify and approve top academic jobs. The task would be handed to the National Academy of Sciences and higher education establishments with "national university" status.

The VAK system is a legacy of Soviet times. Prior to 1991, there was a single, All-Union VAK, based in Moscow, in effect under the political control of the Communist Party and state authorities. In 1992, instead of scrapping the system, successor states set up VAKs of their own.

Many Ukrainian academics saw this as sufficient, fearing that there would be scope for bribery and nepotism if universities were responsible for higher degrees.

But the Ukrainian VAK has not kept universities free from malpractice. Mr Yushchenko's campaign document criticised the "corruption, extortion and protectionism that has become almost a legalised phenomenon in the scholarly/educational sphere".J Other issues being addressed by the new government include raising the status of teachers and improving pay, which is at an all-time low; making financial relations between universities and the Ministry of Education and Science more transparent; and increasing universities' financial autonomy.

The Government has also pledged to:

* Boost investment in universities

* Address equality of access by linking school curricula and university requirements (abolishing the unofficial coaching/cramming network)

* Improve tuition to harmonise with international standards

* Increase competitiveness of graduates at the European level.

The changes are part of President Yushchenko's general pro-European Union strategy. How "old guard" academics, particularly in eastern Ukraine, will react is not certain.

Georgia's 2003 "Rose Revolution" has been viewed as the precursor to Ukraine's "orange". But a reform bill introduced by Education Minister Kakha Lomaia, which aimed to eliminate corruption by creating a single authority for universities and harmonisation measures to enable Georgia to join the Bologna Process, has run into trouble.

During its passage through Parliament, it was attacked for allegedly infringing on academic freedom, threatening cultural values and dumbing down education.J Meanwhile, in Belarus, legislation that would have introduced a two-tier (bachelors and masters) system was killed last week by President Alaksandr Lukashenka. The two-tier system was "a western invention", the President said. Belarus should build on the "very efficient Soviet system" it had inherited.

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